The damage that alcoholism inflicts on a person extends into social, psychological and physical aspects of the individual’s life. Alcoholic neuropathy, sometimes known as alcoholic polyneuropathy, is one of the physical consequences of chronic alcoholism. If left untreated, this debilitating disorder can lead to long-term complications such as disability, chronic pain and damage to the hands and feet.
Pain, Numbness and Paresthesia
The damage to nerves caused by alcoholic neuropathy can impair the body’s ability to detect sensation. This sensory nerve damage typically manifests in symptoms of numbness that extend through the legs and arms. The feeling commonly described as “pins and needles”, which the National Institutes of Neurological Disorders and Strokes explains is known by the medical term “paresthesia," is also characteristic of sensory damage due to alcoholic neuropathy. Pain throughout the arms and legs is another sensory symptom commonly associated with this disease.
Damage to the motor nerves, which supply nerve impulses to the muscles, can diminish muscular function in persons with alcoholic neuropathy. The Milton S. Hershey Medical Center at Penn State University states that damage can manifest as weakness, muscle spasms and involuntary contractions. These symptoms can impair the ability to perform normal everyday movements. Loss of muscle function can also result in difficulty swallowing and speech impediments.
In long-term cases of alcoholic neuropathy, the lack of muscle function can result in atrophy of the muscles.
The nerves that control the function of the heart, bladder, gastrointestinal tract and other organs are called autonomic nerves. Alcoholic neuropathy can affect these nerves as well, resulting in a wide array of symptoms related to organ dysfunction.
According to the Hershey Medical Center, damage to nerves that supply the gastrointestinal tract can result in an inability to properly move food through the stomach and intestines, causing constipation. Impairment of the nerves involved in supplying the urinary tract can result in incontinence or difficulty urinating, both of which are common occurrences in cases of alcoholic neuropathy.
The autonomic nervous system regulates blood pressure by controlling the muscles in the blood vessel walls. Damage to these nerves can cause an inability to regulate blood pressure, with orthostatic hypotension being a common result. Orthostatic hypotension causes dizziness, lightheadedness and sometimes fainting during sudden changes in position, such as moving from a sitting to a standing position.
In addition to other autonomic dysfunctions, alcoholic neuropathy can damage the reproductive system, causing impotence in men.